Originally published in the June 3, 2013 Charleston Gazette-Mail
George “Geo” Bartlett was gone.
No one knows the lonely roads and byways, the towns and states, that lay between George’s exit from Arkansas and Elizabeth’s arrival a quarter-century or so later in Charleston, West Virginia.
They could not have been easy years. The roadmap of her travels might well be said to be written in her gaunt, wiry frame, the trail-worn clothes she wore day after day and a face crisscrossed with lines.
George had walked off from his Arkansas family in 1983, at age 29, after he told those who loved him that he would rather be a woman. When he left his home state far behind, he also left George behind.
It is not clear when he began to call himself ‘Elizabeth’ full-time, among other names. But he was determined to dress and identify as a woman, whatever the fallout to his life and to all who’d known him as a handsome young musician whose music had once been talked up in Rolling Stone.
It is also not clear how deeply Elizabeth suffered from some strain of mental illness, which contributed to her wandering flight from all she once knew.
What is known is that sometime early in the first decade of the 21st century what looked to be a stooped, but tall homeless woman missing many teeth shuffled into town. In her hands, she clutched a handheld recorder. She was still making songs.
Back in Arkansas the years rolled by. The Bartlett family undertook the hard work of acceptance, beseeching heaven to look after a long-missing brother and son.
“Not a day would fly that we didn’t think about him,” said Sharon Bartlett, one of George’s three sisters. “We believe in intervention prayer. We just prayed for his safety. We prayed he was not hungry. We prayed he had shelter.”
He apparently made it to Boston about 1980-81, to record at the studio of Ric Ocasek, band leader of The Cars, who had praised young George’s music in Rolling Stone. Ocasek did not respond to several Gazette queries sent to his management firm.
Then, George apparently deserted that city, too, said Sharon.
The reason they know he was gone from Boston is that Ocasek and their father had a phone conversation and the singer “just basically told him he had left,” she said. “We don’t know if they were disgruntled with each other, if he left on a bad note or what.”
George spent some time in a little town in Arkansas in 1983 where his mother lived. Then, he disappeared.
Family members went on with their lives, always looking over a shoulder for him. George’s father, initially disturbed and angered by his son’s revelations and now heartbroken at the estrangement, tried finding him through the social security system.
Somewhere along the way, George apparently legally changed his name to “Leah Elizabeth Wingfield.” The family learned that Leah Elizabeth Wingfield had begun receiving disability checks, possibly as a result of what middle sister Leigh Ann believes may have been a diagnosis of schizophrenia. “I don’t know for sure. But he had a disability check,” she said.
The family made a video they hoped might reach George if they could pierce the government bureaucracy and get it to him. Leigh Ann recalled its making.
“My dad actually said, ‘You guys will address her as “Leah.”‘ It’s so heart-wrenching — we’re all crying and my dad is begging Leah: ‘Come back to your family!’ He’s saying, ‘If you will come back we will accept you as you are.'”
The video never got to him. Jim Bartlett died in 2006, without ever seeing his son again.
“We married and raised our families,” said Sharon, oldest of George’s sisters. “He didn’t know he had nieces and nephews. We just lived our lives the best we could without him.”
One decade passed, then two. The family’s prayers included one very specific one:
“May George find kindness. May he be embraced by kind people that will accept him and care about him.”
And lo and behold, that prayer was answered.
Elizabeth’s time on the Charleston streets, often hanging about Taylor Books or the old Capital Roasters, was not without incident.
“I heard she could get angry and even that she had thrown a shoe at one of the café workers,” said her friend and benefactor Leslie Clay. “But in my four years of knowing Elizabeth she was never once mean or angry toward me. I imagine she sometimes just got fed up with the way people would treat her.”
After Clay and her husband Carl Agsten decided to head to Central America for mission work, they donated a small home on Dixie Street to Covenant House. They bought it first for Bill Dunn — a street person known as “Aqualung” — as a place to call home. Elizabeth moved in after Dunn disappeared one day.
So, now Elizabeth had the people at Covenant House looking out for her, among them Briana Martin, Phil Hainen, Amy Weintraub and Crystal Good. They guided her to more supervised housing and assistance, trying to figure out how best to help.
“We were all just eager to win her friendship and win her trust,” said Weintraub, then director of Covenant House.
Elizabeth could be inadvertently destructive while tinkering and trying to make things, she said. “She might take apart the thermostat to use it as a new camera she was trying to invent. It wasn’t intentional destruction.”
She also made songs, took phone pictures, concocted little sculptures out of spoons and knobs and stuff as gifts.
“She would bring me videos she’d made. They were often disjointed and impossible to follow. But it did give you a hint she was desperately trying to communicate. That’s part of what made her so endearing to all of us,” said Weintraub.
Good, Covenant House’s assistant director at the time, recalled her first Elizabeth encounter. One chilly day, she spotted Elizabeth on the street in a skirt, thin stockings and sandals. Good purchased a pair of warmer stockings at a drugstore. She went to give them to her.
“She absolutely refused,” Good said.
“I took a deep breath and I said, ‘Well, how long has it been since you’ve seen your family?'” Good recalled. “It was this huge number.”
Elizabeth hadn’t seen them since the early 1980s.
Years later, they had a more fruitful meeting, one that would reverberate across several states and lives.
One day in late fall 2009, Elizabeth walked into Good’s office. In her quiet, small voice, she said: “I want you to help me find my family.”
What finally prompted Elizabeth’s wish to reconnect? Perhaps her closeness with Leslie Clay’s family, holding Clay and Agsten’s children, sitting at their Thanksgiving table? Was it her age, now in her mid-50s?
No one knew for sure. But Good knew what to do next.
“I said let me get started. I Googled a couple names. I called. I left messages. I said, ‘This is Crystal in Covenant House in Charleston, W.Va. We may have a relative here with your same last name.’ Just a generic message. You also had to be careful about identity and things like that.”
When she came to work the next day, “I had at least 30 messages on my phone,” Good said.
“It was like an Oprah moment. So, I was just an instrument, I was just the connector. It was just meant to be. What struck me was the messages — they were so happy.”
George’s youngest sister, Lisa, had last seen him when she was 13, during a hot Arkansas summer in 1983. He taught her how to drive his standard-shift white Mustang, she remembered happily. “He took me to some hills and made me drive home!”
When he wasn’t roaming, he might sit Indian style in his room, incense burning, lost in thought. She can still visualize his Bible beside him, underlined and marked with his notes.
By winter of that year, he was gone. As the years piled up, it looked like he was gone for good.
“I think I grew up kind of mad. At people. At life. I was mad that he left,” said Lisa. “Growing up there was always this void and emptiness.”
Then, the day came more than a quarter century later that she saw her brother again in the community room of Covenant House. Or she saw who George had become.
In November 2009, Lisa, her two sisters, Leigh Ann and Sharon, and their mother, Fern Rigdon Bartlett, drove as soon as they could from Arkansas to Charleston. They had been prepped by Covenant House’s Weintraub and Martin the night before the reunion.
Elizabeth was scared and full of anxiety, Martin recalled. “She was very standoffish. I was very fearful she would run.”
The middle sister, Leigh Ann, recalled the moment Elizabeth entered the room.
“We put Mom in front and then we put Sharon behind Mom, because Sharon is the oldest. Me in the middle, Lisa being the baby at the end. We just all went in single file and embraced Elizabeth.”
Weintraub watched a scene she described as “one of the most positive and significant events of my life and certainly my time at Covenant House.”
Elizabeth didn’t show a lot of emotion those first hours, Weintraub said. “I’m sure she was in some state of shock. But the sisters were amazing. They were just so loving and warm. And they called her ‘Elizabeth’ from the beginning.”
‘We just melted’
Even so, in interviews the sisters constantly catch themselves, shifting between “he” and “she” and “George” and “Elizabeth.”
Yet the emotion of the reunion was uncomplicated. “When we saw him it was, like, we just melted,” Lisa said. “We just melted.”
The only time Elizabeth cried, said sister Sharon, was on learning that her father had died. “She said she cried for the first time in years.”
Next morning, Elizabeth had breakfast with her family at Bob Evans. She introduced them proudly to staff who called out “There’s Elizabeth!”
She walked them around town, arm-in-arm, showing off her hangouts and people who knew her.
It was not all rosy. The sisters saw that they could not bring Elizabeth back to Arkansas just yet, that her needs were many, and they had preparations to make back home. Just as important, Elizabeth needed to be willing and ready to leave Charleston.
And there was another thing the family realized about Elizabeth and where she had landed after so many years of wandering.
“I think she found respite in Charleston. She found a place to call home. She found people that embraced her and cared. I think that’s why she stayed as long as she did,” said Lisa.
“I just want to tell Charleston how much our family appreciates that community for taking her on and maybe even tolerating her at times. There are good people in this world.”
As the sisters and their mother drove south out of the city back to Arkansas, a brilliant sunset lit up the sky. Crying, they sang “Amazing Grace” and “I Can See Clearly Now,” one of their mother’s favorite songs.
Lisa rolled back the sunroof and popped up out of the car to photograph the sunset. The photograph would later appear in a YouTube video the sisters made about finding their brother again. Leigh Ann held tight to her sister’s legs as the car plunged homeward.
“I stand up and we’re going 70 miles per hour!” said Lisa. “I can’t tell you the healing that we felt driving home from Charleston. It’s like, I wasn’t mad anymore!”
Bound for home
In early spring 2010, without a word to Covenant House, Elizabeth disappeared from Charleston.
She made her way south to Arkansas via Greyhound and hitchhiker’s thumb — she was a road warrior, after all. She was in search of a school where her youngest sister taught in Cabot, Ark. She plopped down in the middle of the night outside the first school she found and went to sleep. Bearing no ID, she was promptly arrested by police.
Elizabeth was released from jail the next morning and Lisa arrived and took her to her house.
Lisa slipped back into the male pronoun to talk about her brother’s return to the family fold, at long last. “It was an amazing time. I was just ready to fight anybody that hurt him or made fun of him or bullied him.”
Much could be said of the three years Elizabeth spent back home. She would sometimes ask her sisters to pull the car over to give a few dollars to some homeless person. She could be sweet and funny and — much as the sisters loved George growing up — “Elizabeth was so much sweeter and kinder and so compassionate and loving,” said Lisa.
The happiness and joy was tempered by difficult times. There were rants and raves “and talking to people who were not there,” as one sister put it. There were adjustments. Medication ordered. New family arrangements
Their mother — now in assisted living — had the hardest time of all viewing her son as a daughter instead, the sisters say.
The sisters had their own final transitions to make.
Elizabeth eventually settled into Leigh Ann’s home in Tulsa, a city she liked.
“Sometimes, people would accidentally call her George, and she would have no reaction,” said Leigh Ann. “We would take long drives in Tulsa. I talked to her one day: ‘I want George back, can I have George back?'”
“I can’t,” Elizabeth told her. “I changed 20 years ago. This is who I am now. And I can’t change.”
So, they put that question to rest, said Leigh Ann. “That made life so much easier for me and my entire family.”
Telling the tale
The three sisters said they wished to be forthright in telling their family’s tale for several reasons.
One, that homeless people have families and life stories, too, yet are often ignored, dismissed and even harassed.
Second, that a huge dose of patience and love is needed when transgender identity issues and mental illness tear at a family.
And third, said Sharon, they hope their family’s tale might inspire other families.
“I just want people to know out there that if there’s any dissension or disagreements in their family maybe you can heal that. And reunite. And accept each other no matter what your differences are.”
Last November, Elizabeth’s family gathered around the Thanksgiving table. About that time, she began to grow sick and was put in the hospital. Doctors learned Elizabeth had a cancer mass on her left lung and blood clots all over her right lung.
Elizabeth was cared for her in an apartment by Grace Hospice, then was moved to Clarehouse hospice in Tulsa. Family gathered at her bedside in the middle of the night Feb. 7.
LAs her breathing grew labored, Leigh Ann held Elizabeth in her arms and recited the 23rd Psalm, ending with:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
“And she took her last breath,” said Leigh Ann. “I just thank God that I got to be there and that she didn’t die alone. She was holding my hand and she was looking in my eyes.”
POSTSCRIPT, October 2018: The Bartlett sisters have in their possession an old reel-to-reel tape of songs from back in the day by George “Geo” Bartlett and are looking for a producer or record label that might be interested in helping them to gather up and re-mix the songs for possible release. Use this site’s Contact page, if interested in reaching out to them or e-mail douglas AT the storyisthethgng.com